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Idea of OK County jail trust deserves vetting

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Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office Headquarters Building and Detention Center, commonly referred to as the Oklahoma City/County Jail.  Photo taken Monday, July 9, 2018. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office Headquarters Building and Detention Center, commonly referred to as the Oklahoma City/County Jail. Photo taken Monday, July 9, 2018. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

While members of the Legislature, and parties on both sides of the issue, are hashing out next steps on a statewide approach to criminal justice reform, the issue is very much on the front burner in Oklahoma County too.

Police, prosecutors, judges and jail officials have worked in recent years to reduce the flow of inmates into the Oklahoma County jail. These steps, which include such things as police not taking people to jail for municipal violations, have proven effective. And they must continue because the jail remains a major concern, as has been the case since the building opened in 1991 and inmates found it not especially challenging to break out.

Those escapes have been followed by a litany of other problems — bad plumbing, extensive mold, crowded conditions and violence that alarmed federal investigators, and most recently, a high number of inmate deaths.

These concerns and others led to the creation of a task force composed of community and business leaders who want to reshape the county’s approach to criminal justice. The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Board's latest recommendation is to create a trust to oversee the jail’s operation and finances.

The idea isn’t new — it's been discussed for some time. Tulsa County has had a jail trust for many years.

The idea, however, has long been opposed by Sheriff P.D. Taylor, who’s concerned that trustees could force him to cut back on officers to funnel more funding to jail operations. Taylor also says jailers will quit if they lose their county benefits by becoming employees of a trust.

Taylor is part of the advisory council, which endorsed the trust idea by a vote of 13-0 last week (Taylor and four others abstained). The council is headed by Clay Bennett, chairman of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The group’s “working draft” calls for a nine-member trust that could hire an outside firm to run the jail.

Taylor says private prison operators have already visited Oklahoma City to see if they wanted to submit a request for proposal to run the jail. That assertion was rejected by County Commissioner Kevin Calvey, but the back-and-forth underscores the value of a request — a demand, really — from District Attorney David Prater that this process play out in the open.

“There needs to be robust conversation about this jail in a public forum, and how we’re going to move forward, by the people who are responsible for doing it, and that’s the county commissioners,” Prater said. “And they have failed to do it for years.”

Calvey, one of two new commissioners, promises a full discussion. He and the other two commissioners must follow through on that vow. Bennett’s group has only the best of intentions, and it may be that a jail trust is the optimal way forward. But taxpayers, who fund the jail, deserve to be kept in the loop and have some say in the process.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›

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